Updated: Dec 8, 2020
BKS Iyengar demonstrating Supta Padangusthasana
“Is this yoga??” - Bekir Algan, Ph.D
This was one of my teacher’s favorite jokes. Bekir studied to be a structural engineer & before his career in yoga began he worked designing bridges to withstand earthquakes. Fast forward three decades & I’ve now realized as his yoga student he was teaching us to withstand all of the earthquakes of life, metaphorically speaking, within our own bodies, our physical structures. One of the main teachings of yoga is the embodiment of equanimity, the practice of maintaining an equanimous (even) state of being, throughout it all. Yoga is so, so much more than a string of poses…
Yoga teachers have a considerable responsibility because not only do they have to address the student’s physical condition but also their energetic, emotional, moral, mental, subtle & spiritual aspects as well. It is imperative to find a well-trained yoga instructor to preserve this ancient system and science! The literal translation of the Sanskrit word yoga is ‘To yolk. To bind & attach’. A more commonly used translation is ‘union’ or, ‘to unify’. Unify what? The mind, body & spirit. There is actually a significant distinction between these two definitions as one is a noun and the other a verb. Is yoga a state of being or something we do? There are different schools of thought on this and both are rabbit holes worthy of traveling down and actually experiencing for yourself however in my opinion, both are accurate and meaningful approaches to this sacred subject.
From philosophy to a way of life, to a handful of poses, to enhance meditation, to a scientifically proven system for increased health, we have sadly devolved the practice to a sequenced stretch class, generally speaking.
The yoga boom that occurred in the early 2000s and its ripple is phenomenal. This 5,000-year-old practice from the Himalayas has been well accepted and thoroughly integrated into modern western society. Today, more than 36 million Americans practice yoga, there are more than 300 million practitioners worldwide, 6,000 + yoga studios in the US (pre-covid), yoga is being practiced in schools, prisons, and doctors are prescribing it as a ‘natural therapy’. On one hand, this is an amazing evolution for westerners post-industrial revolution and on the other, it’s sad and shocking to me how simplified and diluted this ancient practice has become.
Regardless of what yoga was or what it has become, we practice it because it feels good and we have to make sure we approach it responsibly so we can continuously expand our practice rather than unknowingly injure ourselves and become scared of it. An elder in the field says that to understand a pose on the most basic, physical level we must practice it for a minimum of 3 minutes, on each side. In most flow classes practitioners are moving in and out of poses within seconds. Yoga poses, when practiced intelligently, can and will generate significant openings in the body. When these same poses are merely seen as shapes to quickly move in and out of, there isn’t the time to understand where the body is in space and, where the awareness needs to be placed so the body can safely release.
It’s said there have to be equal parts strength, mobility, and flexibility when engaging our asana practice. It is important to know where we are weak, over flexible, or hyper-mobile. It is also important to know where we have strength developed in our bodies and to understand muscle strength and bone action are different things in yoga practice. This takes breaking down the pose to understand what it is asking of us. This takes a great deal of time, intelligence, consistent practice, humility, and dedication.
Pull the thigh into the chest to prepare for Supta Padangusthasana.
I’ll give an example… Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana / Extended Big Toe to Hand pose. When standing, this is a balancing pose and also quite difficult because it means the practitioner needs to have the flexibility to reach their fingers to their toes without compromising the alignment of the body. In order to do this properly and be able to hold it for 9 breaths or 3 minutes, a lot needs to happen.
Start at 90 degrees with a belt around the mound of the foot. Stay for a minimum of 3 minutes.
A way of breaking this pose down would be to lay supine on the ground with one leg extended, foot again the wall and the other extended straight up, perpendicular to the other. This is the same shape however we are working it from a different angle. We will put a strap around the mound of the foot that is in the air and hold this for an extended period of time, going through many instructions so the body is educated on what needs to happen to release into this pose, release the hamstrings and learn to activate & strengthen the ‘standing’ leg. I am very fortunate to have found a teacher who studied and understood the fundamentals of an asana practice and who actually educated his students on the subject.
The great and late yoga genius, B.K.S Iyengar understood this to the extent that he integrated the use of and even invented a number of yoga props to assist the individual to get support and gain awareness where the body needed it. This was revolutionary because not all practitioners are young, agile, athletic, or have 8+ hours a day to meditate and work on their asana practice. Most of these poses are extremely challenging for an untrained and aging body however these are the bodies that need it the most!
BKS Iyengar demonstrating Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana.